Japanese Commuter Diaries

Intro here.

They are flooding the rice paddies now. The vistas of dirt fields are now filled with water; transformed into wetland almost overnight. In the evening light, they reflect the sky and mountains behind; like a placid lake segmented by the grids of paddy walls.

Looking down at the nearby paddies from the train, we can take in small, organic, squishy scenes. Muddy pools still, with baby rice seedlings poking up in their neat rows. Ducks and herons going about their business, clearly delighted. The little rice planting tractors at work, with the tiny farmer trucks supplying their trays of seedlings parked on the narrow roads between the paddies.

Later, these pools will become seas of deep green. And later yet, yellow: drooping low under the heavy burden of grain.

But for now it is water and mud. Ducks and rubber boot wearing oldsters in their straw hats going about their labors together.

The junior salarymen from my last instalment have put in another appearance. Just the youngsters, though: none of the managers are in attendance.

At first it was just two of them sitting in the booth opposite me on the morning leg. Nothing unusual here; with their pressed black suits, white shirts and striped ties, overly shiny patent leather shoes, briefcases and overnight wheelie carry-on bags. At the next stop down the line, however, they are joined by another of the lads. This one is different. He is rocking street clothes and has with him a full suitcase.

He sees his two compatriots are wearing suits. He expresses his concerned surprise at this with one of the many expressive Japanese vocalizations they use instead of words. (“ehh!?”)

His two chums are surprised too. You’re not in your suit? (“Sutsu? Sutsu?”)

Oh dear. Buddy in his trendy ripped jeans and rocker shirts whips out his smartphone and hurriedly accesses the email that summoned all of them on this excursion. He’s almost frantically scrolling through it now, looking for some way out of this nightmare. Perhaps the two guys in suits are the ones who misunderstood.

His two mates look on with a mixture of amusement and sympathy. Of course, there is also the subtle edge of predatory satisfaction over the failure of someone who is nominally your competition.

No salvation in the email, the street-clothed fellow sits with a stricken look as he contemplates whatever situation awaits him at the other end of the journey. Will he have time to change into the suit he has carefully packed away in his suitcase?

Not likely.

His pre-trouble embarrassment is not over yet, however. At each of the next two stops, another young colleague boards the train and joins the crew. Both of these fellows is, of course, wearing his suit and has a small overnight bag for his toiletries and street clothes.

Oh dear, oh dear. The one odd man out in the five. Not good.

Later, on the terminal platform, I watch the crew. They have been met by an older gentleman salaryman I have not seen before. He leads them off to their destination. The street-clothed chump with his oversized suitcase takes his place in the duckling procession following in the manager’s wake. Stone faced expressions all.

The manager has made no mention of the lad’s fuck up. Probably all the kid got from him was a raised eyebrow and a cleared throat. Maybe a cough.

This doesn’t mean he aint fucked, though. If they are on their way to meet a customer and don’t have time for him to put on his suit before they do, the manager himself is going to have to bow and scrape to Customer-sama for this breach of etiquette.

The subordinate’s fuck up reflects on the manager, you see. It is his responsibility. His bad.

But being anything other than five minutes early for an appointment is not an option either. Do they have time to handle this? However this plays out, it will not be forgotten. Careers have been torpedoed for less.

Oh well, sucks to be him. It’s the kind of fuck up that the managers will all happily bust a gut laughing about at the post-work drinking party, once the acute tension of it has passed. A “shit happens” incident that won’t truly upset anyone too deeply.

But that doesn’t make the youngster any less fucked.

This is Japan.

Japanese Commuter Diaries

INTRO HERE

On the train.

Today I decide to change it up: sit in a seat other than my normal one. I can choose because I always arrive early enough to get the seat I want.

My normal seat is usually in the last booth on the train (my commuter train has two cars, generally), on the left side. I usually sit facing forward.

However, I have found that it’s nice to change things up. Usually I stick to the left side of the train, since that is the less sunny side, but taking a rearward facing seat on occasion is a nice change of scenery. When you’re used to watching what’s coming in your journey, it’s a new perspective to see those same scenes in reverse. A contemplation of where you’ve been, watching things drifting off into the distance.

Today is overcast, so I decided to really change it up. Right side booth, rear facing. Totally different world now. Like they say: sometimes a change is as good as a rest.

Waiting for the train to depart, a group of seven salarymen get on the train. It’s a whole crew. The dynamic with which they do this is interesting.

First, the point man: junior manager. He snags my usual booth, but takes the rear facing window seat. He is followed by four juniors: young, fresh-faced keeners; all obsequious eagerness and jumpy bowing. They occupy the four sideways facing seats by the rear doors. Totally separate area from their manager. The train equivalent of the kids’ table at a big family function.

This remains the entirety of the crew for some time. Then, five minutes before the train’s departure, the two big dicks present themselves. Turns out, junior manager has been holding the booth down for them.

Middle manager takes the rear facing booth seat next to the junior manager, at the aisle. Then, senior manager gets the front facing window seat to himself. His backpack gets the empty seat to his right.

Bossman is the only one with a backpack. The rest have the ubiquitous salaryman briefcases. Bossman, however, can allow himself this small breach of professional dress code.

It is a very nice backpack. Black and grey. Has the logo of some prestigious international business conference or another. The wooden handle of an expensive, folding umbrella protrudes from one of the backpack’s side bottle pouches.

Bossman’s number two, the middle manager, leaves his seat and heads back to the kids’ section. He hunkers down in front of two of them, like a peewee baseball coach instructing his youngsters. I can make out a few words: “customer,” “office,” “meeting,” “presentation.” His juniors are all attentive heads bobs and squared shoulders. Coiled springs at tension, ready to engage.

His people primed, his duty done, middle manager returns to his seat.

Bossman acknowledges none of this. He has not looked at the youngsters behind him once. Nor will he.

Bossman is in his early fifties, with a greying crewcut. Fit. Very low body fat. Square jawed. Dark black suit. Purple and violet tie with a broad, interesting striped pattern that probably set his wife or daughter back a minimum of ten thousand yen (a hundred dollars). He is calm. Like a cat on its favorite perch, he watches quietly with placid eyes. Sure of his superiority.

Bossman likes gum. He works it like it is premeditated murder, with violent stabs of chewing. The base of his jaw thickens as he chews; the muscles there overdeveloped. Sinews and tendons spring out of his jaw and neck. Not just a gum chewer, then: a nighttime tooth grinder too. Unsurprising.

Bossman hands gum out to his two underlings seated opposite. They dutifully take it. He likes gum, so you like gum. Halfway through the train ride, having swallowed his first batch, Bossman hands out more. He actually throws a stick of it at the middle manager, who has to move fast to catch it in his open file folder.

The managers don’t talk. They spend the first part of the trip going through some paperwork quietly. Reviewing files and business propaganda materials. The Bossman has an interesting looking notebook in which he has glued papers and pamphlets amongst his handwritten notes, like some kind of weird scrapbook. Then, once all their preparations are done, they put their materials away and sit in silence.

They sit in silence because the Bossman wants silence.

When we reach our destination, Bossman and his two subordinates leave the youngsters in their wake, paying them no heed as they move to the escalators to get to the bullet trains. A little later, moving through the station myself, I am able to watch their procession heading up to their platform.

Bossman leads the way, talking amiably with the middle manager, who follows one step back and to his right. Then, a good two meters behind, follow the rest. The junior manager who held the booth seats leads the four ducklings, who follow along, two by two.

Bossman leads the way. Kicking ass for his company. Not a doubt in his mind that his people follow behind, doing everything exactly the way they are supposed to.

This is Japan.